By Lauren Clarke-Bennett
Life is good for the uber talented cuisinier Eric Ripert, co-owner and executive chef of New York City’s famed restaurant Le Bernardi. His passion for the art of cooking shows in every dish he prepares but the top chef is also enjoying his journey into television and the literary world. Still, above all Eric treasures the time spent with his family and the daily meditative practice of Buddhism. A shy boy, born in Antibes, Eric grew up in the south of France living a few years in St. Tropez and then near Toulous where food is an art and a national treasure.
“At around 9-years-old I moved to Andorra, a small country in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain on the Catalan side,” Eric said of where his affection for fine food grew even stronger. At age 17 after attending cooking school, Eric went to work as an assistant chef in Paris and thus began his skyrocketing culinary success.
“I always loved eating and was always in the kitchen as a child.” Eric recalls. His early days of learning to cook from his mother was the beginning of his passion for what was to become a notable career as one of the most celebrated chefs in the world. His dad worked in the high stress world of banking and passed away when Eric was just a young boy, perhaps influencing his choice to pursue what he loves and to keep stress to a minimum. His mother was in fashion retail and extremely passionate about fine cuisine.
“I loved eating in fine restaurants as my mom was kind enough to take me with her very often and I just loved the art of cooking,” he said. In his mid-teens Eric had the choice to go to culinary school or follow a regular path in academics.
“I decided I wanted to be a chef as I was inspired by some of the great chefs of that time, like Paul Bocuse,” he said Eager to get started at age 15, he enrolled in Perpignan a culinary institute in the South of France, worked diligently and graduated at 17 with the full support of his mother behind him.
“She loved to cook too and had the same passion for eating as mine,” Eric recalls. Ripert then worked in Paris at the famed ‘La Tour d’Argent’ restaurant, then ‘Jamin’ under Chef Joel Robuchon who at the time was considered the best chef in France and Eric considers himself lucky to have worked with.
“The tradition in my business is for a top chef to teach whatever they are known for and it is a tradition for young chefs to come to your kitchen to learn from you and then move on to another chef.” Eric states As the rule goes; the executive chef is in charge of the menu and the employees are in charge of executing the vision of the chef and it is not allowed for the young chef to create their own dishes.
“I was ok with that because I knew I had to learn the craft and all the aspects and complexity of the kitchen.” Eric conveys. “Therefore you focus on what you are supposed to learn so you don’t get frustrated.”
In 1991 Ripert moved to New York to work with renowned Chef David Bouley but wound up moving over to Le Bernardin where he took over as executive chef when his superior Gilbert Le Coze died of a heart attack. Eric always created dishes at home over the years but didn’t really start professionally until Le Bernardin.
“At the time I was interested in Southern Mediterranean cooking that is filled with powerful flavors using spices and herbs, is rich in vegetables, fruits, seafood and meats with strong influences from Italy, France, Spain, Turkey and Morocco,” Eric recalls. “It is a healthy, light food because it was created in a hot climate and centered around the sea.”
The following year at age twenty nine Eric earned the restaurant, a New York Times four-star rating and eventually garnering the three-star Michelin rating. In 1994 he became part-owner of Le Bernardin, fulfilling his dream of becoming an entrepreneur.
“I think you have people who like to lead and those that like to be led and I am the first type of guy,” he said. “And when you like to lead others you have to have a kind of spirit where you want to be your own boss, achieve your own vision and inspire others to help you build your vision.”
However, Ripert was educated in the art of cooking the hard way due to the fact that the culture in Europe encourages a great deal of mental, bordering on physical abuse in the kitchen.
“Their way of doing things is to break you mentally and rebuild you,” he said. When he came to the U.S. he thought it was the right way to manage a kitchen which was obviously wrong as most of the staff quit.
“So I learned that if you want to create a successful team you have to be an inspiration, be patient and be a good teacher and mentor.” states Eric. “Abusing your help in America doesn’t work because they follow the positive reinforcement vision.”
When Eric was working solely as a chef, he prepared a dish for the art of cooking without even thinking it was clients eating the food he created.
“What I have learned from the industry and owning a restaurant is the art of hosting people…to be charming and to take care of the clients’ needs.”
Eric disclosed. The constant interaction has also helped him over-come his timid-ness and come out of his shell. Besides Ripert’s remarkable culinary and business accomplishments, he has made an illustrious foray into the world of media. He notes, “The more exposure to people and the media the more it helps you feel more comfortable with it.”
In addition to serving as a regular guest judge on ‘Bravo’s Top Chef’ in the past, he now stars in his own show on PBS’; ‘Avec Eric’ which has won the Emmy and James Beard awards. He has also hosted an online series called ‘On The Table’ airing on the youtube channel which includes guests such as Anthony Bourdain, Stanley Tucci, Roger Waters and Drew Barrymore.
As part of running a successful business, Eric regularly ventures into the restaurant to visit the clients and ask if they have enjoyed their meal. “Sometimes people are not satisfied but I accept the criticism and apologize as I have no fear of criticism and I am lucky to have mostly compliments.” Over the years it has become a natural process and he has learned intuitively to only approach a table when they want to be approached and to avoid them when they do not.
His ultimate goal is to keep Le Bernardin at the top, create fine cuisine and mentor his team. “I don’t have any desire to build an empire as I am very happy with what I have.” Eric declares. He is not interested in opening up Le Bernardin in Vegas or any other location and has not been excited about distributing the ‘brand’ in food or on any other product, although he has been approached by many. “I do only what makes me happy and my lifestyle makes me happy,” he asserts, possibly impacted by the Buddhist doctrine. When many of the chef’s he knows are busy opening up restaurants in the Hamptons where he and his family summer vacation he would never consider it, as it would take away from the lifestyle he has worked so hard to achieve.
From Ripert’s perspective he lives a low stress life and enjoys it. “I think I have found a good balance between work, personal time and family time.” Eric notes. He spends all of his weekends and about four to five weeks of vacation a year with his beautiful family; wife Sandra and son Adrien. “I also spend time traveling for myself and I work all the other days…it’s a full life.” Eric happily sees himself in the kitchen at Le Bernardin for many years to come but in the distant future he has a whole other game plan. “In 20 years I see myself retired on a beach somewhere between the Caribbean, US and Europe and perhaps doing some charity work.” For now he has a full yet manageable schedule that includes serving as Vice Chair of the Board of ‘City Harvest’ & Chairman Emeritus of their Food Council , a charity that rescues food from NYC’s restaurants, to feed the hungry, contributes to many organizations throughout the year including City Meals on Wheels and the Tibet Fund and loves life to the fullest.